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Pedagogical differences between school and university styles of study? The urgent need for information

Helen Lees

There are many things about university which go unsaid with students. Academics write about them a lot; but the complaints, concerns and empirical and theoretical research about the university and its multiple failings do not find their way easily into student hands, hearts and minds. There are numerous examples of literature suggesting students are not in, or entering, an entirely healthy or functional environment when they sign up for their course. We may speak of the ‘good university’, but for academics studying the dysfunction involved, the good university means the university we ought to have, but don’t. There are also lies.

As Raewyn Connell states:

Every managerial university now puts out a cloud of imagery, text and sound intended to misrepresent the way things really are

(Connell, 2019, p. 131)

What ends up in student hands, hearts and minds is fog, fantasy and fairy dust.

So how are things really? Student mental health is increasingly poor (see for example Abrams, 2022);  scholars have highlighted ‘anxious hyper-vigilance’ as the norm (Hall & Bowles, 2016); and suicides get mentioned far too regularly by staff, over coffee. Alas, I’m not exaggerating for dramatic effect. I’m truly shocked at the extent of the dysfunction, even if I’m not surprised. So, I took action.

It was not the research or reports on student ill-being, as students, that made me want to take action but the student lack of awareness about how and why they might be suffering as a student. In this case, knowledge is health. For students, a certain kind of knowledge is needed if they are to survive, thrive and enjoy their expensive university time.

‘For students, a certain kind of knowledge is needed if they are to survive, thrive and enjoy their expensive university time.’

I had been working as a part-time, casual lecturer of academic writing. An enjoyable gig as it turned out. But, relaxed as I was, I was dumbfounded by how little students in my classes knew about how the university worked, often demonstrating fantasy ideas. But they were also very stressed and often afraid. So, I wrote a book.

I don’t think it’s a good thing that my book, Playing the University Game: The Art of University-based elf-education (Bloomsbury, 2022), is a rare publication for student eyes. I hope there will be many more like it. It’s currently rare because it dares to talk frankly to students – through the medium of conversations with wise and caring academics – about the actual university. It gives students the keys to winning. In a nutshell: write well. But the knowledge students need ends with ‘write well’; the prelude, alas, is more complicated. Getting to writing well in a university involves a complex puzzle. Largely the task to solve is undoing the ways that pedagogy functions in school education. We can loosely call the school a pedagogy of teaching. Obviously, this isn’t all schools or all teachers, but it has to be admitted that school students learn from teachers who teach. In the university, however, it’s not like that. Academics share and then they check. They check what students know. Sometimes there is teaching involved, for sure, but the majority of the university journey is self-education. How do you do that? Someone should explain. So I did.

Others should explain. I mean the responsibility on universities’ shoulders to describe in intricate detail the pedagogical shift in learning style involved in the transition from a schooling-taught mentality to a research-informed mentality. Academics should explain. They should assume students need support with this stuff. What stuff? The stuff of coming to terms with the freedoms and powers of knowledge to be whatever you make it; not what you are told it is. The students who make their own knowledge valid and are able to convince the academic staff who are assessing their level of knowledge for a grade that their arguments can hold (even if one disagrees with the position taken) are the winners. The players.

In universities, everyone is a player. Isn’t it about time students got shown the rules of the game? I suggest this would significantly aid them in being and staying well. Students, take note: demand the insider scoop on how to succeed. You’ll feel good and so will universities.


Abrams, Z. (2022). Student mental health is in crisis. Campuses are rethinking their approach. Monitor on Psychology, 10.

Connell, R. (2019). The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. Zed Books.

Hall, R., & Bowles, K. (2016). Re-engineering higher education: The subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, 28, 30–47. 

Lees, H. E. (2022). Playing the university game: The art of university-based self-education. Bloomsbury.